Updated: Aug 23
Adding another language to your skill set can open a great deal many doors to a new world of opportunities. Find out here why we chose to move our children from England to France and how people with more than one language broaden their horizons.
"Vous ne connaissez personne ici?" (You know nobody here?) That's one of the responses we receive from the locals in le Gers in the Southwest of France where we recently moved from Manchester, England to begin a new life. Their statement/ question is one of surprise that we would move to a rural community, knowing no one there and with only one out of four (me) speaking any French. Yes, I agree, we are probably mad. But shortly after making this statement, les français (the French) seem to reconsider as a realisation slowly dawns on them and their faces brighten as they exclaim, ''Les enfants seront bilingues'' (the children will be bilingual). "Exactement!" I reply, "et c'est pour ça que nous sommes ici". And that is why we are here, for the children to learn another language. We wanted our kids to have a wider range of opportunities in front of them. The picture above is of my daughter, Stefanie, opening the door to our French house for the first time. Several months after moving to the continent, Stefi is now singing songs in French, counting to twenty in Occitan and cracking her usual jokes in English - oh, and correcting my French pronunciation! Read on to understand how having a second or multiple languages can help and why being a monolingual might leave you at the back of the queue.
"A chocolate box selection of languages to work with"
I remember when I was 21 and working as a Children's Courier on a campsite in the South of France and one day I got talking to a mum and her six year old daughter who were holidaying there. I spoke to the girl in English and she replied in perfect English. But she was from Switzerland. Her mother went on to explain that her daughter had knowledge of five languages, to varying degrees, including French, English, Italian, German, and Swiss German. I think it was the first time I have stared at a child in complete awe and with absolute envy. Her mother and I went on to discuss how much easier it seemed for children to pick up new languages, with a mind like a sponge and zero inhibitions. They didn't get nervous in the same way adults might do, worrying if our accent is right or if we've used the right tense. No, kids just talk. And their brains drink up the new words around them and store them away like squirrels with their nuts. I waved 'Aurevoir' (good bye in French) to the little girl and walked away in wonderment at the opportunities she might have ahead of her with such a chocolate box selection of languages to work with. I hope that my kids might have similar opportunities with the language skills they are now more likely to obtain.
"65.4% of British adults surveyed spoke English only"
I didn't start learning another language until I was 11 years old. Some might say that is too late, and I admit my skills are far from perfect, but I can at least make myself understood in French and Italian and can comprehend to a certain degree Spanish and German. But this has taken years of hard work and study. In the UK, there is an uphill struggle to get students to engage in language learning, and government policy in recent years hasn't really helped things. In my day (makes me sound old and wise), it was obligatory to take a language at GCSE (exams the British do at age 16) but government policy later changed and British kids no longer had to take a language to GCSE level. This meant some pupils only studied a foreign language for a few years before dropping it. In 1996, French and German made up 81% of A Level entries (exams taken aged 18) whilst a British Council study in 2017 found this figure to have dropped to 45% and the amount of pupils taking a language at GCSE had fallen to less than half (British Council, 2017). This means half of an entire generation of British pupils are now not really engaging in foreign language learning. A survey in 2016 found the UK to be at the bottom of the table compared to all other countries in Europe, with 65.4% of British adults surveyed stating they spoke English only and not a single other foreign language (Eurostat, 2016). Compare this with Sweden where only 3% didn't speak a foreign language (Eurostat, 2016). In Britain, there is work to be done.
Mein Hamster ist gestorben
In my recent PhD research working with students at a British university, the English students frequently said to me, "But we Brits just don't do languages". And this is the common belief now, that we just can't do it. As a nation, we are useless at learning languages, or that is what we've convinced ourselves of. One newspaper headline was entitled: "Language learning in the UK: Can't, won't, don't" and that pretty much sums it up. Even amongst my friends who studied German to A level at school, when we get together and reminisce it's always the same single phrase that comes up: 'Mein Hamster ist gestorben', meaning 'My hamster is dead'. Well, this will be very useful if ever we go to Germany. At school, it was the excuse we learnt for not doing our homework. And our memory of German class today doesn't seem to go much beyond that because many of us have not used our German since those days of homework and pet hamsters. Like the hamster, it would seem at the moment, that language learning in the UK is also rather 'gestorben' (dead). But it doesn't have to be that way. And no, just because English is now considered the international language, that does not mean we simply don't need to bother. I'll explain why now.
Monolinguals take a step back
One survey of multinational European companies found that they expect their employees to have their native language plus a high level of spoken and written English plus competence in at least one other foreign language, and maybe one more (Didiot-Cook et al., 2000). This makes a total of three maybe four languages being an expectation and most certainly essential criteria in European job descriptions. Employers require these skills particularly in multinational companies where negotiations are being made across the globe and in multiple languages, and so employees will need to speak the language of the office and the language of business, whatever that may be. If I take a brief moment to think about my European friends, I would say most of them have at least three languages (their native language, English and one other foreign language) and some have four. This is not really surprising when in most European countries it is obligatory to learn two foreign languages from a young age and to carry them on until leaving school. It is the European Union's aim for all Europeans to be able to speak two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue (European Commission, 2012). So, where does this leave the monolinguals? Well, in terms of jobs, pretty much at the back of the queue. The video below is a little bit corporate for my liking but I think it gets the message across: if it's you up against someone with the same set of qualifications but they have a second language and you don't, it's them getting the job because language skills are what employers are looking for.
"My step dad is one of those Brits who thinks if you just speak a bit more loudly in English and say the exact same thing three or four times over then eventually you will almost certainly be understood"
My step dad is one of those Brits who thinks if you just speak a bit more loudly in English and say the exact same thing three or four times over then eventually you will almost certainly be understood. I have a very clear memory of him bellowing over the desk at a woman at the car rental place at Marseille airport when they came to visit me there on my university year abroad. It was a very monolingual moment, shall we say. But that's not to say he doesn't try. He once spent an entire evening learning 1-10 in Spanish on a CD Rom and he seemed to be doing quite well. When he came up to say good night, I asked how it was going and he said quite proudly he'd learnt 1-10. He began... "uno.. dos... damn, I've forgotten it, what was 3?" And off he went defeated back to the computer. At 64 years of age, he's now moved onto French and has perfected his "Sacrebleu" (Way of showing surprise) and "Voulez vous coucher avec moi" (Will you sleep with me?), said with the same intonation as the song, of course. Again, these are useful phrases, peut-être (perhaps)? Nowadays, he will sit for hours asking my daughter Stefanie, "What's this colour in French?" and Stefanie the little smarty pants smiles at her Grandad and produces a perfect "Vert" (green). "What's this colour in French?" and Stefanie smugly rolls her eyes and says "Grandad, that's rouge"(red). Then, Nanna points at Grandad's hair and says, "Stefanie, what colour is Grandad's hair?" and Stefanie grins and says, "Nanna, it's gris, of course" (grey). Well, they say the truth comes from the mouths of babes!
The first time I asked Stefanie the colours at the table in our kitchen in France, it was when she came to the colour "marron" (brown) that I nearly fell of the chair with excitement. Her pronunciation was just beautiful and I could hear immediately the difference between my clumsy mouthing of the word and hers. I rang my mum and made Stefi perform like a parrot. Then, I rang my dad and asked Stefi to perform again, "Say brown". Well, she's getting used to this performing of her linguistic talent by now, and that delight inside me never dulls each time I hear her or her brother say a new word, whether it be in French or Occitan or in English. Each word is like a new piece to a puzzle, puzzles placed all over the globe painting pictures of new nations and cultures, new places they'll be able to unlock with their language. As I trawl through job adverts myself every day, I recognise that many of them are inaccessible to monolinguals; a two language requirement is a minimum. I hope my two little people will be ticking more of the boxes than I ever could and that growing up at least bilingual will ensure that more options and opportunities are open to them as they venture out into a world where 'parler the lingo' is a must.
I leave you with perhaps one of the best examples of British foreign language talent, of course, it could only be Delboy. Mange tout mon petit pois. If Delboy can do language learning, so can you!
British Council. (2017). Language trends 16/17. Available at: https://www.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/language_trends_survey_2017_0.pdf
Didiot-Cook, H., Gauthier, V., Scheirlinckx, K. (2000). Language needs in business, a survey of European multinational companies. Available at: http://www.hec.edu/var/fre/storage/original/application/7ca31409fee3f05c77b4a3d9286927d2.pdf
European Commission. (2012). Europeans and their languages. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/archives/ebs/ebs_386_en.pdf
Eurostat. (2016). Survey. Available at: https://www.euronews.com/2018/09/26/european-language-day-which-country-speaks-the-most-foreign-languages-euronews-answers
Worne, J. (2015). Language learning in the UK: 'Can't, won't, don't'. Available at: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/11369703/Language-learning-in-the-UK-cant-wont-dont.html